Coronavirus Conversations:

The Social Distance Social

March 16, 2020

Photo via Alison Buttenheim

This episode is part of a limited series of conversations with people who are being forced to make difficult decisions in a rapidly evolving situation with many unknowns.

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Listen to the conversation below or scroll down for the transcript and more information.

Dan Gorenstein: Hey, it’s Dan. Here at Tradeoffs, we’ve been thinking about the best way we can contribute to coverage of the coronavirus. We kept coming back to our core mission: telling stories about problems with no easy fix.

We’re here with our second ‘Coronavirus Conversation.’ These are bonus episodes about people making difficult decisions as they grapple with the coronavirus.

Our first one dropped last week an interview with University of Pennsylvania professor Alison Buttenheim, a social scientist who studies behavioral aspects of infectious disease. In the days to come we will speak with physicians, hospital executives and business owners.

Today, from the Annenburg Studio at the University of Pennsylvania, the second part of our conversation with Alison. She invited me to her neighborhood in Philadelphia on Friday night the 13th.

DG: Alison and about a dozen neighbors are outside her stoop on a block of handsome three-story rowhouses on either side…built in 1876.

Teenagers talk streaming services.

Leo: Hey Rebecca! Are you on Netflix? Hulu?

DG: Adults drink.

Sfx: glass shatters

DG: This looks like a spring-time stoop party on the 2500 block of Aspen St…until I look down. Alison explains why someone has drawn circles on the sidewalk.

Alison Buttenheim: We figured we needed to adapt it for that COVID-19 era. So we have said that everyone needs to take, say, two sidewalk squares away, but you can cluster with your households because you are already exposed.

DG: If this really is a new era – the social distancing era – this party feels like one snapshot from the dawn of that new day.

People skirting the new do’s and don’ts of social distance. Laughing and drinking nervously. Wringing hands over hypotheticals.

One of those people is 49-year old neurologist Brett Cucchiara, who works at Penn Medicine.

Brett Cucchiara: I’ve actually been banned from the hospital for, you know, until I’m on service again because they’re trying to like really stagger things. So like when you’re not on your it’s best to not be anywhere where you’re going to get COVID-19.

DG: Brett’s spent the last few days thinking about the patients who see him after they’ve had a stroke.

BC: Right. It’s not like all that goes away when the COVID-19 epidemic comes to us. So, normally, we would have admitted to the hospital, but if we do that, we may not have room. If we do have room. You may be more likely to get infected. What’s the tradeoff there? So I think we’re going to end up practicing lot more like we did 20 years ago.

DG: And what did what care look like for stroke neurology 20, 30 years ago?

BC: Basically, it was take an aspirin and go about your business and that was it. We gotta wait and see what that’s going to look like in real life. If this wave of infections comes to Philadelphia like it has in Italy, we’re going to have to make some tough choices about how we care for patients.

DG: I make my way back towards Alison…who is sweeping up that glass…

Sfx: Cleaning

Jamie: In our office like we we literally woke up this morning and went oh, shit….

DG: …and listening to her neighbor Jamie – an architect who decided with his partners to have their 30 employees work remotely.

Jamie: Like, what are we gonna do this morning?

Alison Buttenheim: That happened this morning?

DG: Alison gives him a hard time for slow-walking the decision.

Jamie: I feel like I’m not used to it. This is my first pandemic. 

DG: I’m a little confused. How can Alison be so adamant about the architect closing his firm…

But also all about this social gathering?

DG: This is your job. You think about this like how how safe is an event like this?

AB: So the way I’ve been thinking about it is that we all now have budgets for social contact. And if you’re you know, if your budget was a dollar before now, then it’s gonna be a lot less…like this was my social contact for today. I did not leave. I literally did not leave the house otherwise. And if, you know, each household group kind of stuck together and we were six feet away from any other household group. That’s eroding as we have more beers.

And I think, you know, the humor with which were, you know, approaching this is also part of the coping strategy.

DG: Why did you do this party?

AB: In normal circumstances, this is a very regular occurrence and it would have happened probably about this week. Time change, warm enough. And we stoop here in Philadelphia and we have a member of the group has gone through a rough time. And he said, hey, I know we’re supposed to be social distancing, but how about a social distance social.

DG: Alison nods to her neighbor Paul who, right then, is sitting less than two feet from Alison’s husband. I head over just as Paul is talking about a text from his daughter.

Paul Statt: Have you heard the darkest meme of Coronavirus? Boomer remover…then the next text was ‘but there are good boomers.’ I’m hoping you mean me. I’m hoping you mean me…

PS: I’m Paul Statt… Sixty four. I’m retired pretty much. I was a public relations professional for most of my career and a writer, a magazine writer

DG: And you apparently are the source for cocktail party

PS: Well, yes, in one sense. My wife’s having some really serious medical issues. I am feeling very much alone and thought that probably a lot of other people are feeling alone because we’re being told isolate yourself. And I thought, I don’t want to be alone tonight.

I mean, I’m really scared because You know that my by my way, to young wife is really sick….So I just wanted to be with people.

DG: Paul tells me his wife, Amy, is 66…and has terminal brain cancer – a glioblastoma…she’s had several strokes, too…and needs constant care.

Earlier in the day, Amy moved into a new rehab facility…one that instituted strict coronavirus policies…including a ban on all visitors.

PS: The facility that my wife was in yesterday, I could stay with her. I’d been there every night the last week I been with her. But now I can’t. And that’s just that is just heartbreaking. I’m feeling this this tension between being a good citizen and public health and thinking, of course, they shouldn’t allow visitors. And then my personal thought that, of course, I have to be there. But if I am allowed to be there, then everybody has to be allowed to be there. And you have to do things for the community and not just not just for yourself.

DG: But then Paul admits… as much as he knew he should stay away, he and his step-daughter couldn’t.

PS: We did sneak in this afternoon. Both of us, which felt kind of transgressive and illegal. Neither of us, I think, was really happy to have to literally sneak into the hospital.

DG: He knows each visit carries a risk to himself and others…one he’s willing to take.

DG: Because Amy is getting all kinds of medical care there’s maybe a better chance that she’s going to get infected. Are you willing to risk yourself getting infected as a 64 year old?

PS: Oh, yeah. Yeah. When you’re 64, you’ll understand that, that’s the least of it. That’s the least of it.

We don’t last forever. So the fear of death is…to be alone would be really terrible. If I were alone now, I wouldn’t be. But I’m not. You know, there are people here who care about me and my family.

That would be the worst of it–to not have anybody else.

DG: Before I left, I wanted to loop back with Alison about a conversation I had with one of her neighbors, Peter.

DG: Peter and I had an interesting conversation where he said tonight we’re laughing or joking…But Peter also said…the next time we do this…there might be a couple people who are sick or who know people who are sick.

AB: Absolutely. I mean, that’s the moment we are in Philadelphia, that in a week, a week from now, many of us may know someone who’s sick and many of us may start experiencing symptoms. I mean, this is a little microcosm, a little example of the 3000 decisions about social contact that everybody around the world is making right now.

I think we’re gonna have to take it day by day…But I think it’s important for people to think about like a little bit of an allowance, like I’ve got a little bit of leeway at the margin to have a little bit of social contact. Am I going to use that up, going to the grocery store? Am I going to use that up? Taking food to a friend who’s just had surgery or am I going to use it up on a, you know, Aspen Street block party where we try to keep our social distance?

And if the answer’s like we can’t do any of that, I don’t see how we get through two weeks or two months of this. Is that the epidemiologically correct answer? I don’t know. But there’s other dimensions along which this decision has to be made.

DG: So this is a good expenditure tonight?

AB: This is an excellent expenditure of my social contact budget.

On the one hand, it’s like a little bit of normal. Yeah, like we could still get together on Aspen Street. We always do that. We can do that. But more than that, it was like a reassurance that we’ll be OK. You know, come the apocalypse, I’ve got Aspen Street and Aspen Street’s, got my back.

DG: Later that night, I texted Alison thanking her…being out interviewing people…gave me a little bit of my own familiar. Even if it had pushed me deeper into social contact debt.

I’m Dan Gorenstein. Be safe out there. This is Tradeoffs.

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COVID-19 Information and Updates

World Health Organization

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center

Commentaries on the Tradeoffs of Social Distancing

The Dos and Don’ts of ‘Social Distancing (Kaitlyn Tiffany, The Atlantic, 2020)

Coronavirus Will Also Cause a Loneliness Epidemic (Ezra Klein,Vox, 2020)

Coronavirus and the Isolation Paradox (Abdullah Shihipar, New York Times, 2020)

As The Coronavirus Spreads, What Do We Really Owe One Another? (Shannon Keating, BuzzFeed, 2020)


The Tradeoffs theme song was composed by Ty Citerman, with additional music this week from Miscellaneous.

This episode was reported by Dan Gorenstein and mixed by Andrew Parrella.

Additional thanks to Erica Feldman and Khalil Gorenstein.